Some solutions in place to close education gap, but is Utah willing to pay for them?

Published: Tuesday, June 26 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Mark Innocenti, director of the Early Intervention Research Institute at USU, said program evaluation suggests the program has been particularly productive among Latino children.

"It really did have a very strong impact on children who spoke a lot of Spanish at home. There were consistently strong outcomes three or four years out of the preschool program. They seem to be doing quite well with early high quality preschool support," Innocenti said.

This is significant considering that historically, Latino children have had lower high school graduation rates than their peers and typically post some of the lowest average scores on standardized achievement tests. State education officials said, however, those trends are improving through eighth grade, due in part to other initiatives.

Brenda Hales, associate superintendent for instructional services for the Utah State Office of Education, said the Granite School District program complements statewide efforts that are also improving student achievement.

When the state's K-3 reading program began in 2005, just 77 percent of Utah eighth-graders scored proficient or above proficient. In 2011, the figure jumped to 90 percent, Hales said.

"This upward trend holds true for four major race/ethnicity categories: American Indian, Caucasian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students," Hales said.

The program targets school districts and schools with the highest numbers of K-3 students reading below grade level. It also targets districts and schools with large numbers of poor children.

Other strategies that are improving outcomes include an optional extended-day kindergarten program, ongoing teacher training, using data to inform instruction and ongoing adoption of new standards and assessments. 

The question remains, as the population changes, will there be money and political will to implement these or similar programs, or will an achievement gap widen?

Already in Salt Lake City, half of preschool-age children are minorities. Population projections show a steady climb in the minority population with it reaching 40 percent of Salt Lake's population by 2050. Statewide it will reach 30 percent of the population. And much of the population will be driven by births.

"I think about (changing demographics) every day. It is dramatic. I know there will be a tipping point we can't maintain what we're doing based on existing demographics and existing resources," Hales said.

Pam Perlich, senior research economist for the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business, said the 2010 Census suggests new strategies are needed to deal with the state's diverse learners.

"Our class sizes are the biggest in the nation. We could kind of get away with that because we had this really homogenous population and we had a really high level of parental involvement," Perlich says.

Hales said reducing class sizes would help address many issues but Utah's public school system simply cannot afford it. "I don't think we'll ever get around to that," she said.

One of the state's greatest challenges, Hales said, is convincing policymakers that once a child achieves proficiency, resources are needed to ensure their further progress.

She likens it to treating diabetes. Just because the disease is under control does not mean someone should quit using insulin.

"What our data shows is, students' 'at-riskness,' if you will, does not go away," Hales said.

There must also be sufficient funding for ongoing training for teachers.

"If you're ever going to retool people, you have to retrain them. That's a lot less expensive than class size reduction," Hales said.

Hales said it is imperative that lawmakers channel resources to meet the needs. It is perhaps more important that all Utahns view the education of its children as an investment in the state's future.

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